As many airlines are reducing indulgent first-class offerings to incorporate more business-class seats on their planes, it can be hard to tell exactly what the differences are between the two front-of-plane cabins.
The main point of confusion for many travelers is that first class on domestic US flights can look completely different than the over-the-top first-class cabins offered on international flights, especially ones in Asia or the Middle East.
Most planes that fly domestic routes within the US only offer two cabins, typically branded as economy and first class (very rarely does a domestic flight offer business class). Contrary to what some travelers may assume, domestic first-class cabins are actually a less-elevated experience than most international business-class seats. But when it comes to long-haul international journeys, the differences between business class and first class become much more pronounced.
To start, first class cabins aren't available on all international routes. “The number of airlines offering first class, and the number of seats each airline offers, has declined in recent years. There are a limited number of markets that can sell it for the premium required to make money,” Gary Leff, aviation expert and author of the industry blog View from the Wing tells Condé Nast Traveler. “The markets where this is viable tend to be long haul between major business centers, like New York and Los Angeles, London and Paris, and Tokyo and Singapore.”
The two cabins can appeal to different customer bases, too. Most people don’t consider “buying up from business class,” says Leff. Instead, many international first-class flyers are “trading down from flying private” because flying a jet solo across the Atlantic isn’t the most economical—let alone sustainable—option when it comes to stopping for fuel.
First class is the crème de la crème of international air travel. The most obvious differences compared to business class are a greater sense of privacy, more decadent meals, and incredibly personalized service.
“First class means more space and a smaller cabin, so greater privacy. Food and beverages are generally elevated (possibly including wine and spirits that retail in the hundreds versus around $30 in business class),” says Leff. “There should also be elevated bedding and amenities.”
First-class cabins have a higher ratio of flight attendants to passengers compared to business class, meaning passengers receive more customized service options, Leff tells Traveler. For example, first class flyers may be able to request meals and snacks at their convenience, rather than waiting for the entire cabin to be served at once. First class passengers may also have a more discrete check-in experience at the airport, according to Leff, with some airlines even providing an escort between the lounge and aircraft.
“At its very best, first class may be a cabin of four to six seats, offering a generous bed and separate seating area, with personal service from home to and through the airport, on board the aircraft, and on arrival. There will be separate security and an escort to the aircraft (sometimes a tarmac transfer by car),” Leff tells Traveler.
The best first-class seats offer amenities on the plane and at the airport, including completely private plane suites and exclusive access to dedicated first-class lounges that might feature everything from à la carte dining to spa treatments. Some airlines also give first class passengers an expedited path through immigration upon arrival, and others, like Emirates and Etihad, even have planes that offer showers in the sky, notes Leff.
Some of the most luxurious first-class seats you can fly right now include Singapore Airlines’ First Class Suites on the Airbus A380, Cathay Pacific’s on the Boeing 777, Air France La Première Class on the Boeing 777-300ER, Emirates First Class on the Boeing 777-300ER, All Nippon Airways First Class on the Boeing 777-300ER, Lufthansa’s First Class on the Boeing 747-8, and the Qantas First Class on the Airbus A380.
Business class is a more practical way to have a premium flight experience on long-haul journeys—especially if you can swing it using points and miles. A level above premium economy but below international first class, business-class amenities range from lie-flat seats and priority boarding to complimentary alcoholic beverages and multi-course meals. The level of privacy afforded in business class, whether achieved through fully closing doors or spacious seat arrangements, varies from airline to airline.
“Generally speaking, business class is more comfortable transportation but still a mass market product, while first class is meant to be an effortless experience,” says Leff. But business class is nothing to scoff at—many international business-class tickets start at $5,000 for a roundtrip flight from the US, and can get up to $10,000.
The very best business-class seats available right now, featuring amenities like designer bedding and amenity kits with top-of-the-line beauty products, can be found on Qatar Airways, Etihad, Delta, Singapore Airlines, American Airlines, United, Qantas, Japan Airways, and Cathay Pacific.
At the end of the day, travelers seeking an elevated flight experience can’t go wrong with either choice. According to airline industry expert Brett Snyder, “the real difference between business and first class these days is prestige and exclusivity.”
“Both cabins will almost certainly have flat beds, and even business class cabins are now starting to receive suites with doors on some airlines. First class will often come with things like special lounge access on the ground, transfers direct to the airplane, and upgraded meals and drinks,” he tells Traveler. “The vast majority of people will be exceedingly happy with business class, but some just want that higher level of exclusivity because they can.”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler